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By Jamieson, Trent
OrbitCopyright © 2011 Jamieson, Trent
All right reserved.
There’s blood behind my eyelids, and in my mouth. A knife, cold and sharp-edged, is pressed beneath my Adam’s apple. The blade digs in, slowly.
I’m cackling so hard my throat tears.
I jolt awake, and almost tumble from the wicker chair in the bedroom. And I really didn’t have that much to drink last night.
Another one. And I’d barely closed my eyes.
Just a dream. As if anything is just a dream in my line of business.
These days I hardly sleep at all, my body doesn’t need it. Comes with being a Regional Manager, comes with being Australia’s Death.
And I’m a long way from being used to it. My body may not need sleep, but my brain has yet to accept that.
But it wasn’t the dream that woke me.
Something’s happening. A Stirrer… well, stirring.
Their god is coming, and they’re growing less cautious, and more common: rising up from their ancient city Devour in greater numbers like a nest of cockroaches spilling from a drain.
Where is it? I scramble to my feet.
Unsteady. Blinking, my eyes adjusting to the dark.
Stirrers, like their city’s name suggests, would devour all living things.
They’re constantly kicking open the doors between the lands of the living and the dead; reanimating and possessing corpses in the hope that they can return the world to its pristine, lifeless state.
It’s the task of Mortmax Industries, its RMs and Pomps (short for Psychopomps) to stop them and to make sure that the path from life to death only heads in one direction. We pomp the dead, send them to the Underworld, and we stall Stirrers. Without us the world would be shoulder to shoulder with the souls of the dead. And Stirrers would have much more than a toehold, they’d have an empire built upon despair and billions of corpses.
But sometimes the serious business of pomping and stalling can get lost in all the maneuvering, posturing and backstabbing (occasionally literally) that modern corporate life entails.
Work in any office and that’s true. The stakes are just a lot higher in ours.
My heart’s pounding: fragments of the dream are still making their rough way through my veins.
For a moment, I’m certain the monster’s in the room with me.
But it’s a lot further away.
Lissa’s in our bed: dead to the world. I don’t know why I’m surprised at that. After all, me wandering in here drunk an hour ago didn’t wake her.
She’s exhausted from yesterday’s work. That’s the downside of knowing how things are run, of having the particular skills she has. I feel guilty about it, but I need her to keep working: finding and training our staff. As well as pomping the souls of the dead, and stopping Stirrers from breaking into the land of the living.
Lissa’s heart beats loud and steady. Fifty-five beats per minute.
But it’s not the only heartbeat I hear. They’re all there, wrapped inside my skull. All of my region’s human life. All those slowing, racing, stuttering hearts. They’re a cacophony: a constant background noise that, with varying success, I struggle to ignore. Mr. D says that it becomes soothing after a while. I’m a bit dubious of that, though I’ve discovered that stereo speakers turned up loud can dull it a little; something to do with electrical pulses projecting sonic fields. Thunderstorms have a similar effect, though they’re much more difficult to arrange.
It’s a fair way away, but still in Australia. Perth, maybe. Certainly on the southwest coast. Then another: close on it. The recently dead souls pass through my staff and into the Underworld, and I feel a little of that passage. When I was one of the rank and file it used to hurt. Now, unless I’m doing the pomping directly, it’s only a tingling ache, an echo of the pain my employees feel. So that I can’t forget, I suppose.
At least Mortmax Australia is running smoothly. Though I wish I could take more credit for that. Our numbers are low after the bloodbath that occurred just two months ago. But with my cousin Tim being my Ankou, my second-in-command, master of the day-to-day workings of the business, and Lissa running our HR department and leading the Pomps in the field, our offices have reopened across the country. It seems there are always people willing to work for Death. And we’ve found many of them. Some from the old Pomp families, distant relatives or Black Sheep who’ve decided to come back to the fold. But most of them are just people who had heard things, whispers, perhaps, of what we’re about.
Who’d blame them? The pay’s good after all, even if the hours can be somewhat… variable.
It used to be a family trade. Used to be.
I leave Lissa to her sleep, stumble to the living room, down a hallway covered with photos of my parents: smiling and oblivious to how terribly it was all going to end. My feet pad along a carpet worn thin with the footsteps of my childhood and my parents’ lives. This was their home. I grew up here, moved out, then my house exploded along with my life. Now I’m back. They’re dead. And I’m Death. It’s pretty messed up, really. I’m pretty messed up.
My mobile’s lying next to a half-empty bottle of Bundaberg Rum.
I grab my phone and flick through to the right app, marked with the Mortmax symbol—a bracing triangle, its point facing down, a not-quite-straight line bisecting its heart. I open up the schedule: the list of all deaths to be in my region. Technically, I don’t need to look anymore; all of this comes from within me, from some deep knowledge or force gained in the Negotiation. Regardless, it’s reassuring to see it written down, interpreted graphically, not just intuitively.
It was definitely a death in Perth. One of my new guys, Michio Dugan, is on the case. There’s another, in Sydney, and two in Melbourne. A stall accompanies one of those. The stir that necessitated that was what woke me.
I close my eyes, and I can almost see the stall occurring. The Stirrer entering the body: the corpse’s muscles twitching with the invader’s appropriation. Eyes snapping open, my Pomp on the scene—another new one, Meredith—grimacing as she slashes her palm and lays on a bloody hand.
Blood’s the only effective way to stall a Stirrer (though I once used vomit), and it hurts, but that’s partly the point—we’re playing a high stakes game of life and death. No matter how experienced you are, a Stirrer trying to reach into the living world is always confronting. And my crew are all so green.
I feel the stall that stops the Stirrer as a moment of vertigo, a soft breath of chilly air that passes along my spine.
The Melburnian corpse is just a corpse again.
I dial Meredith’s number. I have all my staff’s numbers, though I rarely call.
“Are you all right?” I ask before she can get a word in.
She’s breathing heavily. My breath syncs with hers—it’s part of the link I have with my employees. “Yeah. Just surprised me.”
I wonder, though, if she isn’t more surprised that I rang her. I know I am. I must still be a bit drunk.
“Stalls get easier,” I say, though in truth they do and they don’t: a Stirrer is always a bugger of a thing to stop. “You didn’t cut yourself too badly?”
“No… Maybe… A little.”
They all do when they start out. There’s a good reason why we call our palms Cicatrix City. The scars that criss-cross them chart our passage through this job.
“Get to Number Four and have it seen to,” I say.
“I’m a long way from the office, maybe—”
“No maybes.” I’ve seen the schedule. Meredith’s a ten-minute drive from the Melbourne offices, at most. Every state and territory capital has an office, a Number Four, and medical staff on call. “I pay my doctors far too much not to have them see to you.”
“OK,” she says. “I will.”
“Good work,” I say, then worry that I’m sounding patronizing.
“Thanks,” I can hear the smile in her voice—maybe I’m not. “Thanks a lot, Mr. de Selby.”
“Mr. de Selby? That’s what they called my dad, and he didn’t like it either. Steven’s fine.”
“Now get to Number Four.” They’re all so new. It’s exhausting. “If I hear that you decided to tough it out I’ll be very pissed off.”
I hang up. Slip the phone in my pocket. Then open the bottle of Bundy and sip my rum. I’m all class, Dad would say.
Another five pomps and one stall, across the country, in quick succession. All of them done in time.
Five heartbeats gone from the pool. And another monster stopped.
It’s nothing, right? But I hear them all. I ache with their urgency and their passing. There are always new heartbeats as well. One of those falters after a few minutes.
Another successful pomp.
Life’s cruel. Life’s what you have to fear.
Death. All we do is turn off the lights and shut the door and if we need to bolt it, that’s none of your concern.
I briefly consider going into the kitchen, making a cup of coffee. But I don’t like spending time in there at all. Mom and Dad loved to cook; somehow the skill passed me by. And that space drives it home. Lissa and I eat a lot of takeaway.
What’s more, my parents were killed in the kitchen. That was where most of the blood was. I miss them so much. I miss their guidance, their laughter. I even miss their bickering. Their bodies, Morrigan’s Stirrers inhabited those. The last time I saw my parents as flesh and blood they were being used to try and kill me. That was how far Morrigan had fallen.
Yeah, the bastard was a regular puppet master. He still haunts my dreams. He was directly responsible for starting a Schism, and the deaths of almost every Pomp in Australia. Nearly killed me too. I wish I could say I’d survived because of my tenacity and bloody perspicacity. Truth is, I was lucky. Lucky to have Lissa around. Lucky to have brighter, more able friends.
Sure I’d beaten Morrigan at the Negotiation and become RM—on the top of the One Tree, the heart of the Underworld, where his and my future, our very corporeal and non-corporeal existences were decided—but even that had been more through luck than design.
Two months ago I was just a Pomp—one of many—drawing souls into the afterlife.
Now I’m so much more, and I hate it. Morrigan even killed my border collie, Molly Millions. Until very recently, I imagined seeing poor Moll out of the corner of my eye, several times a day. And every time I did, it knocked the wind out of me. Another casualty in the minefield that is my life.
I could try and sleep. But even if I did, I’d wake just as weary.
And the nightmares. They drive into me even when I’m awake. I close my eyelids for more than a second and there they rush, blood-slicked and cackling. I’m clambering and running over screaming faces. Torn hands clawing and scraping, and these aren’t the dead, but the dying, and they’re dying because of me. More often than I care to admit, I’m enjoying the madness: reveling in it. Sometimes there is the scythe, and I’m swinging that thing, loving its heft and balance, its never-dulling edge, and laughing.
No sleep. No rest. Not when that’s waiting. And a man shouldn’t wake with an erection after such a dream. How can that arouse me?
I dig out something doleful and rumbling from my CD collection. A little Tindersticks, some Tom Waits. Let the music dim down the roar of a nation’s beating hearts. But no matter what I choose tonight, the volume refuses to drown out the sound—and I don’t want to wake up Lissa. I sit there restless, Waits crackling along like bones and branches breaking.
I work on finishing the rum.
What the hell, eh? Drinking’s easy at any time once you start. Easier if the right music’s playing. Tim once told me that music was the perfect gateway drug. He’s not wrong. Finally the rum and the music start to work. Not a lot, but enough.
Twice I stumble into the bedroom to check on Lissa, and to marvel that I didn’t lose her when I lost nearly everything else, that she’s sleeping in my bed. All I want to do is hold her. There was a time that I couldn’t, when to touch Lissa would have banished her from me forever. I went to Hell and back to find her, I pulled an Orpheus Maneuver. Not even Orpheus managed that one, but where he failed, I succeeded. If one good thing has come of this, it’s Lissa.
She snores a little.
It’s endlessly fascinating the things that you find out about your partner when you can’t sleep. The sounds, the unaffected routines of their bodies. The way a person’s eyes trace their dreams beneath their eyelids. There’s more truth in slumber. Perhaps that’s why I feel so unanchored. It’s a space lost to me.
What a whiny bastard I’ve become.
Sometimes Lissa wakes screaming from her own nightmares. She never tells me what they are, claims she can’t remember them, but I can guess.
There’s not much of the Bundy left come first light. And there’s been seventy-five more deaths, two of them followed by Stirrers stirring.
Seventy-five more successful pomps and two stalls and the day hasn’t even properly started.
I never wanted this. Nor was I supposed to have it.
For Death, it never stops. It’s a twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week sort of thing. When I was a Pomp, out in the field, I had thought I understood that.
Well, as it turns out—as it turned out for a lot of things—I’m completely clueless.
Excerpted from Managing Death by Jamieson, Trent Copyright © 2011 by Jamieson, Trent. Excerpted by permission.
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